Married fatherhood is disintegrating in our society. Tonight, 40% of American children will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live. This historically unprecedented estrangement of adult males from their children and from the mothers of their children is the most harmful social trend of our generation.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that we may be witnessing the emergence of a fatherhood movement, a diverse and expanding group of leaders, organizations and grass-roots initiatives, cutting across ideological, political and racial lines, all aimed at reconnecting men to their children.
Consider the signs. As recently as a year or two ago, few policy-makers were calling attention to fatherlessness as a serious crisis. Yet today the issue is widely discussed, as if all of us had suddenly looked around and noticed for the first time that there is an elephant in the room.
In June, Gov. Pete Wilson declared in Los Angeles that “fatherlessness is the most urgent social problem in our society.” Two days later in Washington, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) similarly concluded that “father absence is probably the No. 1 problem in the country.” Do these two leaders agree about much of anything else? Probably not. But they do now agree on this basic point.
Equally interesting changes are occurring in communities across the country. In Cleveland, the pioneering work of the National Institute for Responsible Fatherhood, led by Charles Ballard, is being expanded this year to six other cities. In suburban California, there is the Boot Camp for New Dads in Irvine. Rising like a Phoenix from the decay of Southside Chicago is an enormously successful ministry, the Apostolic Church of God, based largely on calling men of the community to higher standards of marriage and fatherhood. Across the country, hundreds of churches and thousands of men are joining the Promise Keepers, a rapidly growing men’s crusade aimed at spiritual renewal, racial reconciliation and a “servanthood” model of male commitment to family.
Does all of this talk and activity add up to something that can properly be called a movement? No, not yet. The activity is still too fragmented and diffuse. There is not yet that sense of spontaneous excitement and explosive demand for change that has accompanied, for example, the rise of the feminist, civil rights and environmental movements.
But if there is not yet a movement, surely there are the seeds of one.
Whether a fatherhood movement develops fully may depend on how its leaders handle two important challenges. First, as the 1996 elections approach, candidates may seek to exploit the fatherhood issue for partisan advantage. A responsible debate in 1996 about ideas for reversing the trend of fatherlessness would be a great service to the nation and to a fatherhood movement; a politically motivated bout of name-calling would not.
Also, a nascent fatherhood movement could founder due to disagreements over basic goals. Is the main purpose of such a fatherhood movement to increase child support payments from young, unmarried fathers? If so, the likely strategy will be new paternity identification and child support enforcement programs, including job training and other social services. Is the main goal to give divorced fathers more access to their children? If so, the likely strategy will be mandatory parenting classes for divorcing couples plus new laws to encourage joint custody of children after divorce.
Both of these goals have merit. But neither of them seeks directly to strengthen marriage, the essential foundation for hands-on, effective fatherhood. Accordingly, neither child support payments nor improved divorce procedures can be the animating purpose of a national movement to renew fatherhood. The basic purpose of this movement must be far more radical--nothing less than reversing the decline of married fatherhood and increasing the proportion of children who grow up with their two married parents. The slogan should be: A father for every child.